Divided Ukraine accelerates towards catastrophe predicted by all sides

Analysis: tension expected to rise ahead of rebel referendum and presidential election

A Ukrainian soldier stands guard at a checkpoint near the town of Slaviansk in eastern Ukraine yesterday.  Photograph: Reuters/Baz Ratner

A Ukrainian soldier stands guard at a checkpoint near the town of Slaviansk in eastern Ukraine yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Baz Ratner

Sat, May 3, 2014, 01:00

Wildflowers already speckle the Carpathian mountains, pavement cafes line the streets of Kiev and Lviv, and empty Black Sea beaches bathe in warm sunshine. Winter was short and spring came early to Ukraine but it brought little joy to a nation deeply divided, and many expect May to be the longest of months.

Just 10 weeks ago this morning, protesters climbed from their tents on Independence Square to discover they were no longer hemmed in by ranks of riot police, and could walk unhindered up Instytutska Street to Kiev’s government district.

Wandering bewildered along the road where snipers had killed scores of their comrades two days earlier, demonstrators found the president’s headquarters unguarded and realised Viktor Yanukovich had fled in the night.

On that dizzying Saturday, crowds strolled in stunned elation around Yanukovich’s vast estate outside Kiev as the parliament he had controlled for years voted to impeach him and to free his arch-rival Yulia Tymoshenko from jail.

The politicians who laughed and cheered to find themselves suddenly leading Ukraine now deliver grim-faced and weary reports on their daily struggle with separatism, and the threat of civil war and Russian invasion. And the danger grows with each day.

Protesters, usually led by masked gunmen, continue to seize official buildings across the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, brushing aside police who are unwilling or unable to resist. The passivity of the police and apparent powerlessness of local and national officials to restore order in the east only emboldens the rebels, and swells their ranks with people who feel no more loyalty to Ukraine than to Russia.

In terms of language, culture and history, eastern Ukraine is closer to Russia than to Kiev or western cities such as Lviv, which are the strongholds of the new government.

Polls suggest a minority of easterners want to join Russia but in reality relatively few would protest if they woke one morning to discover that, like Crimea, their region was now run by the Kremlin, and many would welcome the prospect of better pay, pensions and more stability that they associate with Moscow rule.

Slow and passive
Kiev’s new leaders, determined to break Kremlin influence and align with the European Union, were themselves too slow and too passive in trying to convince Russian-speakers in the east and south that the new order would benefit them.

Moscow immediately threw Kiev into crisis, scrapping a financial aid deal and energy discount and sending troops into Crimea before annexing it.

But the new government did too little to woo the east, where support for the revolution was weak and many felt humiliated by seeing a local man, Donetsk-born Yanukovich, ousted in what Moscow said was a US-backed coup to bring Russian-hating fascists to power.

The east does not share western regions’ strong Ukrainian identity or desire for sovereignty, and 23 years of troubled independence have fuelled a Soviet nostalgia in older easterners and a sense of grievance in some younger ones, who blame Kiev for their woes and idolise tough Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin.

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